Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory has largely been a realm occupied by physics geeks and mathematicians. Our popular introduction to this phenomena of ordered-randomness was Jeff Goldblum’s Doctor Ian Malcolm from the film Jurassic Park who so seductively demonstrated the theory’s unstable properties by watching a droplet of water slide down the wrist of Laura Dern. Michael Crichton largely lifted the Malcolm character and his theories from James Gleick’s 1987 Chaos: Making a New Science, which first popularised Chaos Theory for the layman.

An early pioneer on the subject, Edward Lorenz elegantly diagrammed variable sensitivity to initial conditions in 1972 as the “butterfly effect”. A meteorologist, Lorenz wrote an early paper entitled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas? The flapping of the butterfly’s wings sets off a chain of events in a non-linear system, a small change in the initial condition, leading to a large – and seemingly random – disaster. The trajectory of change would have been quite different had the butterfly not flapped its wings.

Chaos Theory has slowly migrated from pure science to the social sciences. Though the subject has occasionally comes up for me in statistics and economics, my first academic introduction to Chaos Theory was in a class on organizational behavior. In it the professor boldly characterised chaos as responsible for not only the first space shuttle disaster, but as a potential predictor of the second shuttle crash. In this scenario NASA, its engineers, and its contractors are all variables in the disordered, non linear system. The poor weather, individual behavior, poor communication skills are all elements – though seemingly random “noise” – that are actually deterministic, with well defined statistical properties. Though there was certainly some randomness that acted in the event, a large amount of apparent randomness was actually predictable chaos that if properly identified, may have lead to an alternate outcome for the Challenger shuttle

Though Chaos Theory is slowly being embraced by the behavioral sciences, I have yet to see any practical application in criminal investigation. There should be. Variables in the non linear system would include the offender, the victim, police investigations, the environment where they all come in contact. The initial conditions: the offender’s predisposition, victimology, everything leading up to the event. We know the outcome; so what could have changed the trajectory – the offender and the victim’s path – had initial conditions been different? And what in all of this is randomness and “noise”, those elements we can’t control. And what is chaos, the seemingly random that we need to better understand to perfect techniques of crime prevention?

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